West Concord, MA
Novelist, founder Concord Free Press
“We don’t think every book should be free; we just think our books should be free.”
He is the author of Senseless, Give + Take, Printer’s Devil, and Strategies for Success. He also writes mysteries under the pseudonym, Rory Flynn. For 20 years has worked as a freelance advertising copywriter. “I asked Russell Banks, my mentor, should I be a writer? He said, ‘Yes, but more importantly, be a plumber.’ Implying, you need something to make money at that you don’t take home with you. I was never very adept with hand tools. I’m a word plumber. I find ways to put together little pipes full of words. (Laughs) Let’s hold that metaphor right there!”
In 2008, Stona founded the Concord Free Press, a “generosity-based” publishing house that publishes and distributes original novels throughout the world, asking only that readers make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need. He is also a longtime leader and supporter of Common Ground, a nonprofit organic farm that distributes its fresh food to meal programs and food pantries.
What was your childhood sense of the social class you were growing up in?
I took those cues from my grandfather. He was a cattle rancher back in Oklahoma and didn’t make a lot of money. We’re part Cherokee; my name is Cherokee. We have the same name, my father, my grandfather and me. We didn’t grow up on or near a reservation, but my family is from a pretty hardscrabble part of Oklahoma. My father worked for Proctor & Gamble; he was in the manufacturing part of it, so we moved around to where there were production plants making various P&G products.
My grandfather was the quintessential freelancer; he was an auctioneer and a cattle rancher, he sold pecans out by the highway, then he went into politics and became a state rep. So I just sensed that we definitely were from the earth and without entitlement. Hard work was really important to my grandfather and my father and me. We didn’t come to a sense of, you know, your life’s all figured out. It was more like, you’ve got to scramble just like everybody else in your family. And I hope that’s what I taught my daughters, too.
It sounds like there’s something inherently appealing to you about work itself. Is that true?
That’s interesting. Absolutely. I was in a punk band out of Boston for four years, and traveling around at a really low level, making no money and staying on people’s floors or sleeping in the van. You can be committed to what you’re doing, and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with money. We didn’t have any. I think if you know that you’re not going to make money, you might as well be okay with that. Otherwise you’re just constantly feeling like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder, that the world owes you something. What I enjoyed was playing music. I enjoyed traveling around in the old sort of troubadour tradition, just showing up at a club and playing and moving on; it was a great experience. I do love the act of doing the work because, ultimately, that’s the reward.
I also directed a nonprofit farm here in Concord, Mass, for about eight years called Gaining Ground. We grow produce and give it away for free to meal programs and food pantries and people in need. 30, 40,000 pounds of produce, organic, a year. It’s all done with volunteers, and I was a volunteer director. That project took a lot of time, and I never made a cent from it. But to this day, it’s one of the best experiences of my life, because it took me back to farming like my grandfather. And I loved a chance to give away something beautiful to people who really needed it. Ultimately, it was a gateway project to the Concord Free Press, which is a version of it for books.
What was the genesis of Concord Free Press?
I wrote a novel called Give and Take which was with a large New York publishing house. But my editor left and the book was orphaned, sort of stuck in stasis for a while, and that’s disturbing but happens all the time. It’s not an unusual story. This was right on the cusp of e-publishing, but it wasn’t really wildly popular then, so the options available to me were: put it in a drawer and wait for another opportunity, just write it off / forget it, or try to send it around to other publishers, but by then the book had been around.
Or Plan B, which is what I came up with. I woke up one night and I said to my wife, “You know, Ann, why don’t I just publish a beautiful paperback edition, distribute the book for free, ask people to give money to something they care about and pass the book on so it keeps going?” Sort of a book version of what we were doing with the Gaining Ground project. And she looked at me and said, “You know, Stona? I think you just found a new way for writers to not make money.” (Laughs)
She was super supportive of it, and we did it! Even though my agent told me not to do it, everybody told me not to do it, except for a few really key people. Russell Banks said go for it. A writer named Steven McCauley said, “Wow, you’ve just discovered a new kind of publishing.” Imagine that, you know? And this was the way I wanted to publish Give and Take, because, hey, Give and Take’s theme is about the limits of generosity. It’s about a guy who steals diamonds and BMWs while he’s out on the road playing jazz. He converts those diamonds and BMWs into cash and gives it away, so he’s like this one-man Marxist Robin Hood. It’s a theme that I was really fascinated with.
So we put this book out in a little trade paperback that we invented ourselves. The price on the back says $0.00. It instantly got a huge amount of attention. It went all over the world. It just took off and generated, not just a lot of publicity, which is nice, but mostly just inspired people to be generous. Quickly there were all these donations from all over the world. Not to us, but to really interesting nonprofits, to people on the street. This project had a life of its own. We thought we might’ve still been sitting on 1,500 copies of Give and Take, but they were gone pretty fast.
I think technology is changing in such a way with e-books that it feels a little more old school to be mailing a paperback to someone in Germany or whatever, but that’s part of the charm; it really is a tactile project. I don’t think a free e-book inspires generosity. I think that people have to have something in their hands. And a book, particularly a beautiful one that they know everyone worked on for free – that makes people’s heads spin.
It’s an intersection of what we call the “gift economy” and the more mercantile world of publishing. One of our source books for the whole thing is the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde. We met once; he was really supportive, because the Concord Free Press fits in so well with a lot of the themes he writes about. The gift economy is ancient. That’s how things worked before there was money and commerce. There are a lot of other ways to think about exchange.
I’ve got great empathy for traditional publishing because it’s super hard. But the thing with the Concord Free Press is that the burden of profitability isn’t there. We just put out a couple books a year, send them around, make sure we do a beautiful book each time. And then each one generates about $50,000 in donations. We’ve inspired about half a million dollars in donations with ten books, and that’s just the ones we know about. Our homepage has a long list of incredible generosity.
People are always looking for the catch, like, Oh, they’re going to come after me, or I have to give them money. But there is no catch. We totally demonetize the whole process. We don’t ask people for money and no one pays for shipping. And we don’t go out and shill right and left like you’d have to as a nonprofit.
People always say: Oh, you must be rich. Well, I’m not. And the other thing they say is: Oh, you must be a Marxist. Well, I kinda am, but I’m kinda not. I’m a realist, and it’s not realistic to say, Oh everything should be free. We don’t think every book should be free; we just think our books should be free.
I have great faith in human nature, even though my books are seriously dark. My whole theory about readers is this: If you can create in your mind a fully dimensional person from a bunch of words that you’re reading, well, I think that’s an incredible act of empathy. And so the Concord Free Press project puts that to the test. Are readers more generous? I think they proved it in spades pretty much right away, and it continues to go ahead. We just published our tenth book. We’re just going to keep going. We tell people, we’re too small to fail.
A lot of business guys and sites have dissected our approach, and it really is annoyingly difficult to categorize, because there is no agenda. Almost everybody who’s part of the group that runs this, we’re sort of aging punks, you know? We’re just not trying to monetize this.
We had an offer, someone offered to buy us, an entrepreneur made us a really generous offer to take the whole project over, and he said his goal was to just stop all this free stuff. (Laughs). Because he viewed that as part of, as he said, “the dustbin of history.” Well, thanks for that.
What he wanted to do was get our mailing list, which is huge, of committed readers around the world who’ve requested books. He wanted to use that audience to sort of test drive fiction and help publishers market more directly, so we’d become basically a marketing arm of traditional publishing, which we had zero interest in. So after a couple nights of hand wringing, wondering whether we were turning down like a meal ticket, we said categorically no. But then it just made the offer go up, and by the time we ended, we were at seven figures.
Was it difficult to turn down seven figures?
Yeah, it was, but the idea of becoming the guy who started the great idea and then turned it into something ugly just really did not appeal to me. You get that queasy feeling. Like ugh, no thanks, I don’t want to do that. The idea of it was really soul-killing. It would just be the death of what we think is a beautiful thing. It would turn into something stupid. That’s the thing that happens with little, beautiful projects that become something, you know, less beautiful because of the need to commercialize it.
I just think everybody’s hardwired for commerce now. From Etsy on up, everybody’s got to figure out some way to sell something and make profit and support the bottom line. I think there are a lot of great projects – and, certainly, I’d like to think the Concord Free Press is part of this – that you do because you want to do them and because they do other good things in the world versus make money. If the only goal of putting time into it was to ultimately sell the project, it’s just kind of a different motivation. You can feel it at every layer, including the language that’s used around it and the way it’s packaged.
When people get our books, they can tell it’s a labor of love and that it’s the end result of a lot of commitment that didn’t involve being paid. There’s a lot of different ways to think about exchange and value and gifts, and they all go well beyond what Charles Schwabb would like you to think. You find other work to make money.
It sounds to me like you may be providing an example of a very different perspective, because I think there are people who would just find turning down the seven figures unfathomable.
But if you know what the consequences are, and those consequences are powerful enough to balance out the economic gain… And it wasn’t like we were suddenly going to have seven figures in our bank account. He was just going to front the project, and I would have a salary and it would be more than I ever made, but I just don’t care. It’s a punk rock thing. It’s like, I don’t care. Don’t care enough to sell out. Ultimately, this project’s just not for sale.
So what it is though, and you hit on something interesting, it’s an inspiration. A lot of people have contacted us and said, “I’ve got this project. I’m thinking of using your model. Just wanted to check with you.” And we would say, “Hey, if you like our model, feel free to steal it. [The idea] predates us by thousands of years.”
So it’s actually a great time to be a writer, and it’s a terrible time to try to make a living as a writer, but you just keep your eyes open and find new ways of doing it. Writers, I think, are very agile at rethinking their world.
Creating something beautiful and giving it away for free has incredible power, and I thoroughly believe in that, because it satisfies this primal instinct that goes well beyond depositing a check. I hope that the Concord Free Press inspires a lot of people. That’s the ultimate legacy of it.